Coping with Pastor Sandalista

I have to vent on this because it’s going to eat me up from inside if I don’t.

I attend a church located in a very red Congressional district in a very red state.  I joined the church when I moved here 12 years ago because it was the church my aunt and uncle also attended, and still do.

Over the years we have gone through several pastors at our church.  The trouble started about four years ago when the pastor we had hired to be our new long-term pastor got a sudden vote of no-confidence from the congregation.  The reasoning behind his dismissal seems a little picky in retrospect, and the pastor in question appears to be thriving at his new congregation to this day.

The problem was, having dispensed with a new pastor so quickly, the wheels for acquiring yet another new pastor turned very slowly, and in the meanwhile the congregation, needing an interim pastor, turned to a gentleman I shall refer to hereafter as Pastor F.

Make no mistake, Pastor F is a kindly old man to a fault, in person.  So much so that the congregation bent over backwards to assist him through his physical limitations, which included having eyesight too poor to read the gospel lesson, even as we sought repeatedly to locate a permanent pastor to take the reins.

But the real problem with Pastor F would come when he got behind the pulpit.  To understand why you have to know a couple things about Pastor F.

P. J. O’Rourke, in his book “Holidays in Hell”, described his assignment to Nicaragua to cover the free elections there in 1990 (a mistake which the government of Iran seems to have learned), and described a peculiar set of liberal American religious groups who had gathered there to rally support behind Ortega, whom he rather famously termed “Sandalistas”.

Over the course of his term as our interim pastor, and his relating of the stories of his life, we learned that Pastor F was, in fact, one of the Sandalistas.  And given what his age would have been at the time, quite likely a leader at that, although that was never explicitly spelled out.

Pastor F has no regrets about his role in that region of the world or his views about what happened there.  There was no communism in Nicaragua or El Salvador, he insisted; no, it was just a label that had no other purpose than to demonize good people.

And lest one think that a simple delusion of propoganda, Pastor F has made it crystal clear that he holds world views that are very much in line of those held by the likes of Ortega, and Castro, and Chavez.

Probably his favorite “hobby horse” issue is that of health care.  He would frequently quote the “45 million people without healthcare” line straight out of the Democrat talking point handbook.  The metro area has a hospital which specializes in offering health care to people unable to pay for it, but as it was located across a county line (the line being less than five miles south of the church) Pastor F deemed it “too inconvenient” and organized a lobbying effort among several churches in the area to get a similar hospital built in our county.  This effort was rebuffed (I did say we are in a very red district), but it showed how much of a political activist Pastor F could be even at his advanced age.

In retrospect I’m at a bit of loss to explain exactly why I remained a member of the church while this was going on, as many others, including many supporters of the ousted pastor, had done.  I think partially it was because I had personally become a rather prominent member of the worship aspects of the church, meaning the routine Sunday morning logistics, and as such couldn’t leave without my absence being noticed, and as someone who places religion firmly above politics, I didn’t want to be seen breaking from a church where I had formed substantial roots, over something as petty as political differences.

It was also partly because of the promise, that went long unfulfilled, that Pastor F was merely an interim pastor and that a replacement was imminent.  Also, as much of an activist as he might have been, as an every-week preacher even Pastor F could not maintain a constant stream of politically-charged preaching.  Finally, one more factor might have been that I took on listening to his sermons as a way of testing my own views, that if I couldn’t face up to the other side’s point of view then my own beliefs were suspect.

Regardless, after almost two years of this I had reached the end of my rope, and was prepared to inform the church that I would not be continuing to recommit my services to them in Fall 2007.

That was when the hand of God intervened and brought us a new, permanent pastor, a younger pastor, and most of all one who kept left his political views, whatever they are, at the door on Sunday.

So the story has a happy ending?  Well, yes and no.

While Pastor F may no longer our every-week pastor, he is still very much a member of the church, and the political activism still continues, even if a bit more under the surface.

But worse, far worse, our new pastor is only human, and as such cannot be at the pulpit 52 weeks a year.  Pastors do get sick, and go on vacation, and even go on missionary trips to spread the Word and care for the truly, desperately poor in the world.

And when the new pastor is not present?  One guess who fills in for him.

Worse still, not being the every-week pastor means that Pastor F has built up a lot of his favorite rhetoric that he is so certain the congregration needs to hear.  As a result, the weeks where he does preach are all but guaranteed to be political talking-point fests railing against anything and everything conservative and/or Republican in this country.

Pastor F present what I can only call a warped view of the first-century Middle East.  (Incidentally, he never preached on any text outside the four gospels, making the task of the first two readings, one which I often performed, a thankless and pointless one.)  On one occasion — and I swear I am not making this up — he claimed that the wealthy people of that time kept the poor in their place via the first-century equivalent of subprime mortgages.  Another time, he took the parable of the man who hired workers at different times of the day yet paid them all the same wage, and turned it on its head, claiming that the workers who complained were the righteous ones and that the man (or should I say the Man) set his wage scale deliberately so as to cause squabbling among the working class people.  The whole business about the parable being prefaced with an implicit “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this”, was of course summarily ignored.

This past Sunday was an unusual one for me in that I had no obligations of my own but could sit back as an ordinary member of the congregation.  My uncle joined me, and told me my aunt was “playing hooky”, but I suspect she had had a heads-up, as — you guessed it — Pastor F was back to preach again.

On this occasion, the gospel was about the woman who was healed by the act of touching Jesus’s cloak. And it wasn’t long before Pastor F went off in his usual vein, making up facts such as the woman’s doctors deliberately failing her, and the priestly class being on top of the local power structure (Romans, Schmomans, apparently) ensuring that the woman could never be cured and become “clean”, had it not been for the cloak-touching miracle.

But, never satisfied to slander people dead 2000 years ago, Pastor F had to add in a modern-day linkage, and somehow he managed to segue into the nomination of Judge Sotamayor, and, of course, the shallow, wrong-headed “Straight White Male” resistance to it (a group he claimed full right to slander based on his own membership in it), which was based on nothing more, he stated, than the fact that “she acted like a Hispanic woman”.

That line drew a round of laughter from the congregation, though whether it was more “it’s funny because it’s true” laughter, or the kind of laughter out of surprise that the Shock Jock comedians of the early 90’s would get, I couldn’t say.  I have a lousy ear for that.

What I do know is that my uncle quietly slipped out five minutes before the service ended.  I might have followed him out myself had I not had a small piece of business to attend to.  As such I didn’t get a chance to quiz him on his thoughts about the sermon.

He may have had any number of reasons for leaving early but as I know him to be definitely not liberal I have my suspicions.  It’s largely the same reason Pastor F continues to get away with preaching the way he does.

To employ a wholly overused term, no one in the church wants to be “that guy”.  The guy that gets confrontational with a nearly-blind octegenarian.  The guy that raises a ruckus in church of all places. The guy that acts all intolerant of opposing viewpoints.

So, even if I had managed, in the short time I had to think about it, to resolve to quietly ask Pastor F on the way out what, exactly, he meant by “acting like a Hispanic woman”, I honestly can’t say that I would have had the nerve to go through with it.  Because I don’t want to be “that guy” either.

So instead I write this all up anonymously, and post it where only like-minded persons are ever likely to see it.  Is this cowardly of me?  Yes, I suspect it very much is so, but today’s social climate does make all of us a little cowardly.

At this point I honestly don’t know what to do.  Next week, in all likelihood, the new pastor will be back on the job and things will be back on an even, non-political keel once again.  Yet the elephant, or rather the donkey, remains in the room.  I’ve asked God to guide me on this and he has led me to this website and inspired me to type this essay.

I leave it to you, dear readers, to lead me to the next step.